It doesn’t have the words “tomb” or “raider” in the title, but Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is the best Tomb Raider game in a long time. This is a very different adventure for Lara. She’s still spelunking for treasure, but Guardian of Light finds her playing cooperatively with a partner, introduces fun new arcade features, and gives players a new perspective on the iconic British action heroine. The result: you’re going to fall in love with Lara all over again.
The story is mere fluff designed as an excuse for Lara to run into traps and encounter monsters. She uncovers an ancient mirror in South America, an evil demon is released, and The Guardian of Light, Totec, wakes up to help Lara save humanity. Story and dialogue are definitely the weakest parts of this game. Any time a giant monster or trap appears Lara offers up a “one liner,” but they are entirely unimaginative and always made me cringe. It’s also pretty ridiculous to watch Totec, who is supposedly an Aztec deity, running around puncturing fools with an M-16.
Story moments are delivered with animated cut scenes — except the opening and ending moments, which are presented with that comic book pan-and-scan style that downloadable games are so fond of these days. It always looks a bit cheap to me. An intro is supposed to draw us into a game and the ending is a reward for playing all the way through, so I don’t see why these important moments were the ones to miss out on animation.
This game is gorgeous, though. The environments are intricately detailed and there is a lot of verticality so you can often see new areas or some you’ve already visited in the distance. Because the game looks so good, I think I notice the faults more than I normally would. Many objects are destructible and look great as they explode, but then the pieces may immediately disappear when they hit the ground. And during a boss fight with a demonic T-rex, the collision detection felt a little wonky so that Lara would be warped into its mouth. Not a major buzzkill, but it did momentarily take me out of this beautiful world Crystal Dynamics has created.
But, that’s about where my complaints with Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light end. I had a blast with it from start to finish and several IGN Editors who I rounded up for co-op sessions did, too. Crystal Dynamics is really onto something here and I would much rather see more of these types of adventures for Lara than the traditional Tomb Raiders that have become stale over the years.
Fitting for an arcade game, Guardian of Light is about racking up high scores and enjoying some friendly competition with a partner. Finding treasure and killing enemies earns you points and you can compare scores with everyone on the worldwide leaderboards. You may find yourself good naturedly trying to grab gems before your buddy does or stealing their kills in order to boost your own score. Earn enough points on a level and you may receive a new weapon or upgrade. Each stage has optional Challenge Tombs that will offer up valuable artifacts and relics if you can solve the puzzle. Artifacts and relics can be equipped to your character in order to significantly enhance their skills. And then there are the many Reward Challenges in each level that grant weapons and items for completing random tasks like “destroying all the columns in the stage.” There are many, many hooks here to keep you interested.
Speaking of weapons, there are loads to find and you can customize your character (Lara or Totec) with four at a time. Guardian of Light is sort of a dual-stick shooter that has you running around with the left stick and aiming with the right. The action is very satisfying and it’s fun to experiment with the many weapons.
The puzzles have been cleverly designed to require the particular talents of both Lara and Totec. Lara has a grappling hook she can extend that Totec can then walk across like a tight rope. Or Totec can throw his spear into a wall for Lara to jump to. You encounter puzzles, start experimenting and trying different approaches, and then you eventually solve it — together. If you ever had a friend watch you play a Zelda or Resident Evil game and offer advice, it’s a lot like that, except in this game your friend is playing with you. It’s great fun.
Over the course of the game the puzzles develop from simple one-step exercises to elaborate conundrums and you’ll find that two heads really are better than one. Those Reward Challenges I mentioned become significantly more complicated than just destroying all the pillars, too — but the artifacts and relics you can earn later in the game will turn Lara and Totec into super heroes.
Impressively, Guardian of Light remains a good time even if you’re flying solo. The game doesn’t give you an AI partner — instead, you’ll encounter slightly tweaked versions of puzzles that are possible to solve on your own. Since the single-player and cooperative games differ significantly, drop-in drop-out play isn’t possible. All of your equipment carries over from single- to multiplayer games, though.
I should also point out that, at launch, Guardian of Light does not offer online cooperative play. That feature will be patched in later with the release of the PlayStation 3 version.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a great adventure, especially if you’re playing co-op. Despite the silly story and dialogue, I had more fun with it than any Tomb Raider in recent memory. With a great new look, clever puzzles, and loads of fun stuff to collect, this is an extreme makeover for Lara of which you will surely approve.